Never enter an unfamiliar port at night (published January 2016)
That’s the rule. Or at least that’s the rule for many passagemakers and coastal cruisers. And the prudent skipper is considered to be the one who plans landfall accordingly.
The truth, though, is that even familiar ports can be difficult to enter at night. Weather changes quickly, lights obscure our view of what was once seemingly familiar and aids to navigation lose their easily recognizable ranges and bearings when a veil of darkness has been pulled over them.
Sailing at night is one of my favorite parts of the lifestyle, to be sure. I fell in love with it when I was a kid, came to appreciate it more when I began sailing offshore and really started understanding its nuances while instructing students in it. There is simply nothing like being out under the moon and stars on a boat in any expanse of water.
But safety, as we all know, is paramount. Small mistakes can turn into big problems quickly—none more so than when entering a port at night.
While helping a friend move his boat in two big hops, we left on a favorable tide in the evening and sailed a modest distance before ending up at our destination for some rest at 0130. The port was familiar. We’d both entered it at night before and we weren’t worried about making it in safely this time. That being the case though, we still took it seriously.
On our approach we figured out what lights we should be seeing, what the range and bearing was to them and kept a weather eye around us for the numerous commercial and fishing vessels that frequent the area at all times of day.
As we neared the harbor and marina entrance, our eyes started deceiving us. Lights on shore clouded our once certain view and the closer we got the more things seemed to change. We knew the entrance light on the breakwater sheltering the marina wasn’t red or green, but yellow, and with so many white and yellow lights behind it, it was difficult to spot from any distance.
Communicating clearly between each other as to what we were seeing and what we should do, we slowed our approach, circled back into deeper water and reassessed our position. Only when we reset our bearings were we able to locate the light on the breakwater and from there our approach was safe and clean.
When we were tucked into our slip, we sat in the warmth of the cockpit’s full enclosure with a nightcap and examined what had happened, what we could have done better and how—even though we’d both done this before—it had ended up so different this time.
The bottom line for us was that even though this was a familiar port and a night entry, we were glad that we’d prepare like it wasn’t. By looking at our charts beforehand and knowing what buoys and marks we were looking for, we were able to stay calm and in control when something didn’t seem right. And when something doesn’t seem right at night, it’s probably not.
Andrew, along with wife Jill and sons Porter and Magnus, are currently cruising the Pacific Northwest aboard their Grand Soleil 39 Yahtzee. Follow their adventures at threesheetsnw.com/yahtzee.